Commentary: Transparency issues would accompany Wesley-DSU merger

By Rep. John Kowalko

The imminent merger/acquisition of Wesley College, a private college, by Delaware State University, a public university, has once again brought into focus the determined effort by our state government to resist the transparency and openness necessary to allow public awareness and accountability. Delaware has historically ranked near the bottom for its lack of transparency and accountability.

Delaware’s shaky financial disclosure and ethics system is one big reason why the state earned a failing grade on the State Integrity Investigation, an assessment of state government accountability and transparency by the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity.

A report released in November 2015 shows that Delaware received a 56, or grade of F, ranking it 48th among all states. See the report here: publicintegrity.org/politics/state-politics/state-integrity-investigation/delaware-gets-f-grade-in-2015-state-integrity-investigation/.

In assessing the systems in place to deter corruption in state government, some of the categories that Delaware failed in were public access to information (grade F, rank 24th), political financing (grade F, rank 27th), executive accountability (grade F, rank 36th), legislative accountability (grade F, rank 48th), state budget process (grade D, rank 42nd) and ethics enforcement agencies (grade F, rank 43rd). These statistics do not present a very flattering picture of the “Delaware Way.”

Recent examples of Delaware’s embracement of government secrecy and lack of public accountability abound.

Gov. John Carney, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Division of Public Health have refused to release or post data as to the specific locations of coronavirus outbreaks, despite repeated requests by myself and other legislators. This information would be invaluable as we reopen child care centers and plan to reopen schools.

Delaware’s State Department has failed to require identification of beneficial ownership as regards nearly 1 million Limited Liability Company licenses issued yearly, and the Legislature has failed to pass legislation to require oversight that would be in the public’s interests.

The recent case involving the closed-door negotiations between the governor and the Wilmington business community that resulted in the dismantling of the Rodney Square bus terminal and the secretive bidding process and awarding of contracts for construction and management of the new Wilmington Bus Hub exemplifies an unwillingness to allow public access or scrutiny to major policy decisions. Repeated Freedom of Information Act requests on the particulars were rejected.

We’ve witnessed the abuse of the “epilogue language” process in the recently passed budget bill that allows select schools to keep money specifically allocated by law for student transportation expenses. Although existing state law requires that the money not used for transportation expenses be returned to the taxpayers, the epilogue language inserted into the budget bill contravenes existing code, and my amendment to remove it failed on the House floor.

Delaware’s Legislature created the Delaware Partnership for Prosperity, a public/private entity that recommends disbursement of tens of millions of taxpayer dollars to some of the richest corporations in America. Some recent recipients of note were Amazon Inc. and Barclays banks. Despite written FOIA requests by me for details, the DPP has claimed it is exempt from FOIA rules, even those submitted by a sitting lawmaker on behalf of his constituency.

These continued abuses of the public trust have cemented Delaware’s reputation as a secretive operation that feels it has no responsibility or obligation to the taxpaying public that it is sworn to represent.

This moves us into the current situation regarding the University of Delaware and Delaware State and their refusals to allow public scrutiny of their affairs. These two public universities have received nearly $1.5 billion in taxpayer monies over the last decade. They have consistently refused to adequately disclose where that taxpayer money has been used or spent. These two universities continue to falsely claim that they are private institutions, despite Delaware law to the contrary. They both enjoy a limited exemption from FOIA requests, thanks to a 1977 law passed by the General Assembly. Delaware is one of only two states that directly exempts major public universities from FOIA requests. Delaware Technical Community College, which also receives state funds, is not exempt from FOIA.

My efforts to repeal this ill-advised exemption granted to these two publicly funded entities has been consistent and ongoing. House Bill 126 was filed in 2012, House Bill 331 in 2014 and House Bill 333 in 2020. All these bills were filed with a specific purpose in mind, and that is to allow Delaware’s taxpaying public the right to see how their tax money is being spent, whether it is being used effectively and to their benefit, and whether these heavily taxpayer-funded institutions are developing policies that serve the best interests of all Delawareans. The University of Delaware and Delaware State University should be forced to lift their cloak of secrecy. I’ve stated many times that they can’t be private one day and public the next. We give them entirely too much taxpayer money that we cannot track.

One might ask if the proposed acquisition of Wesley College by DSU helps or harms either school. At first glance, it seems that Wesley College will benefit significantly, since it has teetered on the brink of financial disaster. Last session saw the first allotment of significant taxpayer money to a private institute of higher learning. Will Wesley survive? Will the college recover and maintain a sustainable course? Will this merger come with unforeseen consequences to the financial stability of DSU? Surely, a successful partnership will benefit the city of Dover, its residents and the student body and employees of Wesley. But can the continued investment of substantial taxpayer funds into Delaware State be disaffected? Will the burdens of the acquisition outweigh the benefits of the partnership as far as Delaware taxpayers are concerned?

That is a conclusion/assessment that cannot be objectively analyzed through the cloak of secrecy that Delaware has provided for UD and DSU. As elected officials, we owe our constituents and citizens an unfettered and unfiltered access to policies and plans that are made with their assets. It would be presumptuous of me and any other sworn public servant to not question what is being done and what risks are going to be thrust upon our taxpaying families.

Rep. John Kowalko is a Democrat representing Newark.